Performance and Identity
Judith Butler says that the signs of gender are performed, just as speech acts are. Is this, then, what creates identity? Does, over time, the performance make the identity more “real” than it would be otherwise? Or is identity just as real without the performance aspect? Does the combination of speech and performance make identity? These are the questions running through my mind after reading Butler’s piece “Critically Queer” out of her book Bodies that Matter. Even the title of the longer work is intriguing in this context, though. If bodies matter as much as they seem to by the title, then why is performance (both in gender and speech) so important here? Is performance, then, what makes someone queer or non-queer?
The first question I will attempt to answer here is “Does performance create identity?” In contrast to the argument that Butler seems to be making in this piece, I say that performance does not specifically create identity. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick says, “silence is rendered as pointed and performative as speech” (4). Therefore, it seems as if performance and the lack thereof both influence identity, but I would not go so far as to say that these are the only factors that go into the making and reinforcement of identity. Someone that has never had a sexual experience (and therefore, has never performed gender in that particular sense) can still identify in a particular way. That person may be very open and vocal about preference (gay, straight, bi, pansexual, genderqueer, or any other form of sexual identity) even without having had the experience of performing. This is why I say that performance definitely influences identity, but does not define or create it.
For example, I identified as bisexual before I had any experience with women. I felt this was appropriate because I was very enthralled by the female shape, which I found extremely attractive; I hoped that I would have the opportunity to actually confirm my belief for several years before I actually did get intimate with a woman. This was what felt right to me, yet I know several people that did not classify themselves until after their first intimate encounter. Identity was not created by the performances mentioned here, but it was confirmed and reinforced.
Throughout the years that I have been sexually active, my self-identification has changed. Instead of calling myself “bisexual” I now prefer the term “pansexual”; even though I have not had an encounter with someone outside of the male-female identity as of the writing of this essay, I do not reject the possibility. I have several friends that identify as transgender, yet they have not begun the process of moving from one physical body into the ones that they want to inhabit. Does this change their gender? Medically, yes. But it does not change how they perform the genders that they identify as.
The second question I asked was, “Does the performance make the identity more ‘real’ than it would be otherwise?” This idea is tightly intertwined with the next question I asked, which was “Or is identity just as real without the performance aspect?” Because these two questions are so closely related, I will deal with them together. Since sexual orientation has “far greater potential for rearrangement, ambiguity, and representational doubleness” (Sedgwick 34) than gender, I argue that while actually being physically involved in a sexual situation can confirm what was previously considered as the orientation (or identity), that involvement, that performance, did not make anything more or less real than it already was. Identity, therefore, is just as real whether it is currently being expressed or not. One does not have to be performing in a particular fashion to identify as such.
The only exception that I can sense is that of the people that perform in drag shows. A drag queen may be a straight, gay, or otherwise sexually-identified male, but no matter how he identifies his preference for a partner (or multiple partners), his identity changes when he performs. Drag queens go from their everyday male identification, using male pronouns and actively “being” male when not in drag, to having an entirely different identity on stage. The drag queen has a female stage name, acts femininely, dresses in women’s clothing and wears makeup, and is identified by female pronouns while in costume. A drag queen may be trying to “pass” as female while dressed up, or she may decide that she would prefer to be outlandishly, obviously male in female clothing. Either way, this is a clear example of performing identity.
Almost, but not exactly, the same thing occurs when females perform as drag kings in these shows. Identity still changes from the use of female pronouns to using male ones, but there is usually less over-the-top dressing and a stronger attempt to actually pass completely as male. I find this distinction to be fascinating. Why are drag kings more serious than drag queens in show? I have no idea, but that difference definitely warrants further study. The shows have a very different feel to them, even though they are both instances of performing an identity distinctive from the performer’s day-to-day self, females take dressing in drag more seriously than the men do in the shows. It is almost universally understood, though, that no matter the orientation of the person dressing in drag for a show, the drag is a performance for the benefit of the other people there for the show. This is separate from the idea of cross-dressing, which is done for personal benefit, and is therefore another form of identity altogether.
A transvestite dons male clothing (if female) or female clothing (if male) for the personal feeling of comfort. However, this does not implicitly mean that the person wants to be male (if female) and vice versa. It is expression, not performance, in this instance. I say this simply because a transvestite is still a transvestite regardless of the clothing being worn at the moment. It could be argued, in fact, that the performance actually comes when identity is not being expressed properly. For example, a male transvestite will feel more comfortable and natural in female clothing. Therefore, when wearing clothing meant for males, that is when the performance of a non-queer person is actually occurring.
My last question was if performance was what made someone queer or not. My answer is simple: no. It is not performance, by itself, which makes someone queer. Identity makes someone queer. Performance is an outward expression of inner identity. The two are intertwined, for certain, but one does not make the other.
Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer.” Bodies that Matter. Oxford, UK: Routledge, 1993. 223-242.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Introduction: Axiomatic.” Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: U of California P, 1990. 1-63.
In reading Butler, it’s important to understand that her analysis of performativity is not quite performance as we typically know it. When we hear “performance” we think of something that is conscious, a way we present ourselves purposefully… But when Butler talks about gender being performed, she is not imagining a conscious performance, or any particular kind of act (sexual or otherwise). We are performing in every moment of our everyday lives, and the performance of gender is not separable from the body in her theory. We might lay claim to an identity and we might consciously perform ourselves in a certain way, but Butler goes deeper than that: she says that our performance of gender it is what makes our body legible to others as human, the body of a man or a woman. And that performance is part of a larger system we access through language; we simply can’t get at whatever our bodies might be separate from the meanings we assign to them. That’s the meaning of Butler’s subtitle, “On the Discursive Limits of Sex.” I hope this makes sense!
I think that in the years since Butler wrote this text, the available range of cultural identities has grown a lot — genderqueer and transgender communities have even been influenced by her work. As Sedgwick insists, though, it’s always been true that acts and identities, what we do and how we understand ourselves, do not line up in very straightforward ways! I think that sometimes, perhaps, the ways we think about “identity” in everyday practical life can make this more difficult to see…
That simultaneously makes sense and doesn’t. I can now see better where Butler is coming from after your explanation, but I cannot fully get on board with the notion that we are always performing. I think there are both conscious and subconscious performances, and Butler’s notion of performance seems to mostly be tied to the subconscious.
If we are always performing, then why are some performances more obvious than others? Why do some acts (or the lack thereof) matter more than others?
Would it help to think of performing and acting as synonymous? Acting can mean putting on an act, or it can simply mean *doing* — performing, similarly, can be the conscious performance of drag etc or just the day to day living of gendered lives. Butler’s point is that the everyday version might feel natural but it’s no less constructed (where constructed doesn’t mean necessarily easy to change….) than the other.